Elmhurst College GIS MOOC: Exceeding Expectations

May 22, 2014

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What happens when you combine MOOCs, ArcGIS Online and the Geospatial Technology Competency Model? According to Elmhurst College, the answer is: Skills for the Digital Earth. This massive open online course (MOOC) is the first one being offered by Elmhurst College and the GeoTech Centerand it covers geospatial technologies and their role in society. It started on March 30 and ended on April 26. As a Geographic Information Science and technology enthusiast, I was instantly lured, and did not lose any time to enroll. This proved to be an excellent decision; when I completed the course I felt deeply satisfied and motivated. This course far exceeded my expectations, proving to be a valuable resource regardless of participants’ expertise. There was always something new being offered for everybody.

The first thing that surprised me was that the course was designed to be self-paced, meaning that I did not have to worry about any hard deadlines besides the end of the course. This flexibility is a must-have, allowing you the opportunity to fully complete the course in less than a week or spread out the devoted time according to need. In addition, the course consisted of seven modules that progressively increased in difficulty. The first one, “Fundamental Geography,” introduced a variety of concepts, from defining geospatial technology to the Geospatial Technology Competency Model (GTCM) technicalities using only an 11-page reading and one activity. This activity was straightforward, meant to serve as an introduction to ArcGIS Online (AGOL) and Web mapping. Module 5, “Geographic/Geospatial Tools and Technology,” discussed more profound and technical concepts such as patterns, spatio-temporal thinking and Tobler’s First Law of Geography, to name a few. The activity required creating queries to filter data, identifying risk zones via a combination of buffers and overlays, and communicating results using Web map applications. Finally, in Module 7, not only did the complexity of the concepts increase, but so did the workload. The readings went from one to 11 and the activity was estimated to take eight hours or more. Fortunately, it did not take me that long.

After the completion of a module, you are awarded an electronic badge. This is a brilliant idea and one of my favorites because it rewards the effort by giving something that proves your achievement. For instance, people who could not finish the seven modules still had the opportunity to be recognized for what they did complete. It is necessary to claim a badge in order to sign up for a Credly account, and from there you can share it via Facebook, Twitter, Mozilla Badges and LinkedIn. It is also possible to create an electronic badge gallery within a WordPress portfolio using plugins. Image at left: Credly account user interface.

Most of the modules were well-crafted, bringing general concepts such as basic computer skills, creative thinking and problem solving/decision making to a more geospatial context, and making clear their relevance to the GTCM. The activity in Module 2, “Fundamental Computing Skills Associated with Geography,” made use of Excel to exemplify how to perform basic geocoding. The reading in Module 3, “Creative Thinking,” was brilliantly structured, accessible enough for geospatial newcomers while providing meaningful insights for more seasoned participants. It made use of different examples to show that “Integrating seemingly unrelated information can lead to developing creative solutions,” which is particularly important in GIS analysis. “Problem-Solving and Decision-Making in Geography,” Module 4, demonstrated the importance of being systematic while solving spatial problems using GIS. There was always a sense of balance and accuracy, which are fundamental to providing a meaningful learning experience.

The use of the GTCM as an organizing principle was a great success. This fostered familiarity not only with the topics discussed during the course but with the overall professional practice, which was surely a desirable feature for both novices and more experienced participants. As geography suggests, it is imperative to know where we are.

Although the content of the course was excellent, the platform badly hindered the overall experience. This was my first experience with Desire2learn and I felt disappointed. The platform was poorly designed in terms of user experience: the font size was too small, there was a lack of contrast between font color and background, and there were multiple navigation issues. This does not match the pedagogical quality of the course. I have experienced more polished platforms such as Coursera and Edx, and it is clear that “Skills” could greatly benefit from these. The introductory videos did not comply with the quality standard achieved by the readings and activities. I would have preferred a more orthodox approach, which tried to humanize the experience by showing a person talking to me rather than an avatar. Still, most of the readings were compelling, but there were times when the presentation was inelegant. For instance, Module 7 readings were PowerPoint slides with deficient graphic design instead of a neat document, which had been the norm during the rest of modules. Despite this, I downloaded all the documents and I am planning to use them as study material.

Notwithstanding the “Skills” platform and presentation flaws, this was a great start for anyone who is interested in Geographic Information Science. Its content was strong, and it followed the precepts of the Geospatial Technology Competency Model, making it worthy of attention from even more advanced participants. The course was a pedagogical delight, always promoting active inquiry, problem-based learning and experimentation. The awarding of badges was a good example of how well-thought-out this course was, going a step further than conventional certificates. This was the first time that I have seen this strategy implemented in a MOOC. Overall, “Skills” was a great experience. It reminded me how much the geospatial technologies field has evolved: the challenges that have arisen due to the technological advances, its ethical implications, and its future solution scenarios. This makes me wonder: What skills will be needed to make sense of a future Digital Earth? Image at right: Mozilla gallery for electronic badges.


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